Malware, short for malicious software, is software designed to secretly access a computer system without the owner's informed consent. The expression is a general term used by computer professionals to mean a variety of forms of hostile, intrusive, or annoying software or program code.
As many readers of this column know, advertising has been kind to me in the years since I've been writing. I've never been anywhere close to being able to quit my full-time job and take up internet journalism full time, but ad-impressions from my readers have padded my bank account a little and made it possible for my wife and I to enjoy a couple road trips and other frivolous pleasures.
As a result, I revised my college-era views on internet advertising. Today I see ads as among the few solutions that seem a viable way to support the free content model that has made the internet the marketplace of ideas that it has become. Consumers who care about the content they enjoy can and should take pains to ensure that the ads that support that content are allowed to display and people like me, who directly benefit from those ads, should seriously consider the ethics of freeloading on the ad-supported content system.
Despite all of that, my ad-blocker goes on today... at least for the time being.
Advertising is a balancing act: too intrusive and you drive people away, not intrusive enough and your clients don't feel like they're getting enough bang for their buck. Lost readers are one thing but freeloaders are even worse, consuming resources like bandwidth and server-time without "paying" for it in ad-views. The technological and social battle between advertisers and freeloaders has shaped the nature of the online advertising; from banner ads to popups and today's audio-off-by-default flash-video-ads the market has moved to exploit greater bandwidth availability while simultaneously discouraging users from skipping the ads entirely.
Personally, I have no problem with the absurdly tacky ads that often grace my column. If "The Situation" wants to sell me some kind of body spray or a "Mom" "discovered" a rule that I must obey to lose three jeans sizes... well... that's marketing for you, I suppose. While I'm willing to put up with garrish ads, videos, things that play music at me for no discernable reason, and even flash apps that inexplicably take over portions of the screen and block basic site functionality, I am not willing to put my livelihood at risk.
I'm a software developer; I write code for a living and that means that my computer has to work. It has to work right; it has to work all the time; and I absolutely, positively can not bring my work to a halt simply because an ad partner is serving ads corrupted with Malware.
And they are.
I will not pretend to know all the ins and outs of the ad buy process but the very long story made short is that my column's host sells advertising space to clients on its own and backfills empty spaces from a third party provider. When you see ads by companies you recognize, it's typically because someone working for the company sold that ad space. Those ads go for a goodly sum and contribute to the months where authors like me see higher payouts. Those ads aren't the problem.
The problem is the third party provider. Twice now my system has been infected by an ad served to it on my own column and twice I've had to spend several hours scanning my system and removing the offending program. Naturally I, and other users who were affected, complained and we were reassured that the issue had already been escalated and that steps were being taken to pull the offending ad.
That was this weekend. Today, my system was re-infected. I am presently running the Malware scrubbing utility... again.
As a result of this I can no longer reasonably assume the ads served on my own column to be safe content. Viewing them has already put my home PC and my wife's PC at risk and cost me hours of productivity. As the browser I presently use - Google Chrome - does not have the capability to selectively block Flash and Java content, I have chosen to block ads entirely for the time being.
I am not the only user doing this.
Ordinarily I would argue that the market will solve this problem; that as users decide to go elsewhere for their content advertisers will re-evaluate their strategies in order to get their message in front of more eyeballs. But Malware isn't an advertisement; it's a scam, and exploitative attempt to hijack personal information, extort money, and otherwise abuse users into divulging sensitive information or forking over large quantities of money. Malware distributors don't need to worry about consumer loyalty or band impressions and as a result the ordinarily advertising market can not adequately police them.
Unlike ads that start blaring audio when the page loads or flash yellow and red while dancing around the screen, Malware infected ads directly attack a site's users and site that fail to protect their users from such content will see significant and permanant reductions in their advertising revenue.
The Malware producers won't care; they'll move on to the next site and the next target but the site that failed to police its advertising content remains forever blacklisted in ad-blocking filters and in the minds of its one-time users.
I will continue to write and administer my column because it is something I love and believe in but I don't know when I'll feel that it is safe for me to turn off my ad blocking filters and allow the ads that pay me for my work to load once again.